49ers’ Greg Clark is secured but tight end position remains under a dark cloud of uncertainty

Mar 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM

The Tight End position on The San Francisco 49er’s has been relegated to a secluded option as of late in it’s total sphere of high powered offense, never have I seen this more evident than as I observed it in the 2000 season. We are reformulating the West Coast offense to fit the immediate needs of stretching the playing field.

However we are ignoring one of the most productive positions on offense that the basics of the west coast offense has utilized for many years, and has been the wild card in scoring and winning in many a pivotal situation at the goal line. We have adopted the philosophy that continually stretching the field with three wide receivers at a time is increasing our chances of immediate scoring.

By utilizing the tight end to it’s fullest potential we can chew the play clock in time of possession by throwing short to intermediate passes and advancing down the field in methodical fashion. Keeping the opposing defense on the field and wearing them thin should be top of mind.

We have been negligent in focusing on this position for far too long and this 2001 Draft is the perfect timing to address this need. 1997, Third Round Pick Tight End Greg Clark has been the mainstay tight end since filling the void left by All-Pro tight end Brent Jones who was a favorite and trusted target when Steve Young was in trouble.

Clark has not been able to fill those shoes left by Jones and his time is wearing thin as his ability to stay healthy raises questions as to his durability over the future. Clark is tough and can play with a high tolerance of pain but he is adversely effected when doing so on the field.

San Francisco went to great lengths to acquire Greg Clark in the 1997 NFL Draft he was drafted in the third round (No. 77 overall) in that draft. The 49er’s traded third (86) and fifth round (156) picks to Indianapolis in order to move up in this draft to select Clark.

Since that time Clark has been productive but not on the scale as expected in the mold of Brent Jones. He has been hampered by reoccurring injuries that have blackened him as being a liability to the team.

Greg Clark stands 6-4 and weighs 251-pounds he was drafted out of Stanford as a two-year starter at Stanford. None other than Bill Walsh himself recruited him as a receiving tight end, but he was made to switch to a blocking role following Bill Walsh’s departure from San Francisco.

Clark finished Stanford career with 43 receptions for 492-yards and three touchdowns, He earned first-team All-America at Rick’s Junior College in Rexburg Indiana by J. C. Gridwire, after catching 44 passes for 565-yards and seven touchdowns in 1994.

He was rated best tight end in junior college by Blue Chip and Super Prep Magazines, Was second-team all-region selection with 17 receptions for 200-yards in 1993. He graduated with a degree in psychology.

After being drafted in 1997 Greg Clark tried to be the tight end Steve Young was accustomed to from Brent Jones but he was used primarily as a blocker and suffered broken ribs on (12-7-97) inn a game against Minnesota. Overall in that year he started four out of 15 games and had eight receptions for 96-yards his longest being 23-yards averaging 12-yards per reception and one touchdown.

In 1998 he played in 13 games starting in nine he had 12 receptions for 124-yards the longest being again 23-yards for an average of 10.3-yards per reception with one touchdown. In this year he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during pre-season games and was inactive for some.

In 1999 Clark played in 12 games starting 11 of them he increased his receptions to 34 for 347-yards with a 24-yarder being the longest. He averaged 10.2-yards per reception and registered no touchdowns. Here he suffered more rib injuries during pre-season and was inactive for three weeks. After playing a game at Minnesota and catching three passes for 27-yards on (10-24-99) He left the game with a collapsed lung.

In 2000 Clark had his most productive and healthy season playing and starting in 15 games he had 38 receptions for 342-yards a career high. He also broke a string of 40 games without a touchdown with his four-yard touchdown reception from Jeff Garcia in the fourth quarter vs. New Orleans on (12-10-00). In the last four games of the season Clark recorded 10 receptions for 106-yards and two touchdowns, including a career high 62-yards receiving at San Diego on (12-03-00).

With this goodwill production in 2000 San Francisco felt very inclined to keep Greg Clark at all costs even with the seriousness of the salary cap looming over their heads. Greg also was very relieved and enthused to be staying in San Francisco and contributing to the very team that believes in him today.

On February 16th, 2001 Greg Clark agreed to a new contract that included a combination of salary reduction for cap purposes, incentives and restructuring of base pay into a signing bonus per order of his agent Steve Baker.

The complex formula enabled the 49er’s to save approximately $1.4 million on the salary cap and salvaged the only experienced and talented tight end that is on the 49er roster today.

“Just from my own research I felt pretty good that Greg would end up making the same kind of money if the 49er’s ended up releasing him,” Baker said. “But he wanted to remain with the 49er’s, so we worked it out.”

Greg Clark was originally scheduled to earn $2.25 million in 2001, with a cap figure of $2.94 million. The 49er’s could have saved $1.5 million if they released him. But thank God he is still with us today as the depth at this position is as raw as uncooked hamburger.

“I’m glad negotiations are over and I can still focus on football,” Clark said. Clark accepted a $500,000 pay cut with the possibility that money can be regained through incentives. He also converted some of his base pay to a $1.3 million signing bonus. He will in overall earnings earn between $1.75-$2.25 million this year his agent Steve Baker said.

“He’s still one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league,” Baker said. Had San Francisco released Clark think of the ramifications of that release what would have happened to an offense that ranked fourth in the league in 2000.

Clark’s primary role was as a run blocker and he played an integral role as the 49er’s have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of Clark’s four seasons with the 49er’s. But now we must look to utilize him even more especially with the departure of All-Pro legend Jerry Rice after June 1st of 2001. His receiving talents should and must be counted on as a legitimate and viable second option in the passing offense.

A look at depth.

Behind Greg Clark the talent pool at the tight end position with the 49er’s is significant and deep, rarely did we have to call upon any of these reserves in the 2000 season. Signed by the 49er’s as a free agent to practice squad on (11-5-99) is Tight End Justin Swift out of Kansas State College.

Swift was drafted in 1999 by the Denver Broncos in the seventh round (238) overall, Since then he has been signed and waived several times by the Philadelphia Eagles and the 49er’s and has seen action in NFL Europe with Frankfort Galaxy.

In College Swift caught 42 passes for 697-yards and seven touchdowns in his career. He was named second-team All-Big 12 as a senior and as a senior caught 23 passes for 342-yards and four touchdowns. He has also caught a two-yard touchdown pass vs. Purdue in the Alamo Bowl.

While a 49er in 2000 Swift started just one game out of 16 and has one reception for eight-yards. Swift stands 6-3 and weighs 265-pounds what is the future of this athlete? That is a question that is yet to be answered, as his experience on the field has been very limited.

Then there is Duke University Terrence Dupree signed by the 49er’s as a free agent on (04-20-00). He has been on Injured Reserve almost ever since and has seen absolutely no playing time in regular season. He has had high ankle sprains and knee injuries as barriers to his development.

He did make some impressive plays while in training camp with his blocking skills and his ability to make the catch over the middle, but that was short lived due to reoccurring injuries. Dupree stands 6-3 and weighs 260-pounds So what is the future of this young athlete that has never been drafted?

In College he caught 35 passes for 414-yards and one touchdown in his four-year career at Duke. He posted his best year as a senior, catching 18 passes for 236-yards. Dupree might be a dark horse or he may never see the playing field in regular season.

San Francisco attempted half-heartedly to find some talent to go behind Greg Clark via the NFL Draft in 2000 by drafting Arizona State Tight End Brian Jennings in the seventh round of that draft.

However Jennings served primarily as the teams long and short snapper and played only as a back up to the tight end. He possesses good blocking skills and saw action while in college as a back-up tight end and as a long snapper for two years (1998-99). He is one of the nations top long snappers.

For a career he played in 22 games at Arizona State, finished with four receptions and one touchdown in two years of action. He averaged 11.5-yards per reception and posted five tackles. Jennings duties as a snapper are definitive but what about serving as a pro tight end? That is something the franchise will have to secure soon.

Brian stands 6-5 and weighs 238-pounds and has the physical and mental attributes to be a good tight end but the inexperience on the college level will hamper his starting for a long time to come. We may just use him in only emergency situations.

As you can see the depth at tight end is not at all full of experience and or talent, should we enter the 2001 season with these questionable athletes or should we look to this year’s draft and address this position?

Let’s meet the coach.

Tom Batta is San Francisco’s Tight Ends Coach; he is in his second year as such. He has 16-years of NFL coaching experience and will be key to training and developing new and raw talent for this position.

The special projects of Justin Swift, Terrence Dupree and Brian Jennings have to be paramount on this coach’s mind and will he be able to help mold these athletes into the experienced playmakers we demand them to be both as team officials and fans alike.

San Francisco is the fourth stop Batta has worked for during his NFL career, which began in 1984 as defensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings. He served as defensive assistant/special teams coach for none other than Bud Grant in 1985 before taking over as tight ends/special teams coach under Jerry Burns from 1986-91. Batta coached special teams on Dennis Greens staff from 1992-93. After ten years with Minnesota, Batta joined Indianapolis tight ends/quality control coach from 1994-97. He then went to Pittsburgh in 1998 as a quality control coach.

Batta was in the collegiate coaching ranks at Akron University in 1973 after leading Warren High in Warren Ohio to a state championship. He moved to Colorado as defensive line coach from 1974-78. He then served as defensive coordinator at Kansas (1979-82) and North Carolina State (1983) before joining the NFL in 1984.

Before becoming a coach Batta played three years on the offensive and defensive lines for Kent State from 1961-63. He earned his bachelor’s degree in health and physical education and a master’s in education in Akron.

Although he has only been a part of this staff two years Batta seems to have a vast amount of knowledge and experience to offer it will be needed and results proven on the playing field as Greg Clark demonstrated this past season.

What scouts look for in a Tight End.

All NFL teams dream of having the complete tight end, San Francisco is no exception as we did have the complete tight end in Brent Jones. He was without question one of the greatest if not the best in that position in my eyes.

Greg Clark has the talent and ability to excel to new heights should he apply himself and is given the opportunity to demonstrate that on the playing field. The coaching staff will have to provide that opportunity in the form of going back to the basics of the west coast offense and utilizing the tight end to it’s fullest capabilities.

Other exceptional tight ends in the league include Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez and Tennessee’s Frank Wychek . Both of these professional athletes are respected and feared by opposing teams as legitimate threats on offense with both their blocking and receiving abilities.

The NFL average tight end stands 6-6 and weighs 245-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 4.80. The minimum is 6-2 in height and weighs 240-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 5.00.

The perfect tight end is not only a good athlete, but also someone that can stretch a defense and create mismatches in man-to-man coverage. However, if a tight end is one-dimensional and a lot are, it forces offenses to be more predictable.

If he is at least an adequate blocker with good receiving skills, then every time he lines up, defenses must account for him.

The other type of tight end is a possession-type receiver, who does not stretch a defense down the field in the passing game. But he knows how to get open, uses their body to shield defenders from the ball and knows how to find open seams in the defense, especially on third down.

These types of tight ends usually have long and productive careers and become valuable assets to the team in general. Most teams carry three tight ends on their rosters and usually one of them is a blocking specialist who can help short-yardage and goal-line situations.

The other two usually are a combination of blocking and receiving types, Should you obtain all these qualities in one player, chances are you have a Pro Bowl tight end.

Top Draft Prospects.

The 2001 NFL Draft is not really full of quality tight end prospects there are significant drop-offs in talent early with this position, acquiring one will constitute lot’s of coaching and patience.

North Carolina’s Alge Crumpler is the complete package, and stands alone as the best tight end in the draft. He stands 6-2 and a half and weighs 286-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 4.74. He has been compared to Indianapolis tight end Ken Dilger.

Hands: Crumpler has natural, soft hands. He has caught almost everything near him, can catch in a crowd, and does a nice job of using his hands to cradle the ball. Does a nice job of catching balls thrown over his head, resulting in good concentration.

Patterns: Can adjust to zone coverage. Uses his body well to get into position. Is quick and athletic. He has never really been featured as a passing threat. He must prove that he is a consistent route runner.

Blocking: Very effective at the line and downfield. Has good strength, and uses his legs well. Blocks moving target well, and works to get into position at all times. Does not possess great size, but still matches up well against bigger defenders. He sustains all blocks but has not overpowered anybody.

Release: Rarely has trouble getting off the line. He is a powerful player with good upper-body strength. He does possess enough quickness to get off the line against jamming linebackers.

Run after catch: He can be tough to bring down after catching the ball. For he is a big guy with a powerful running style and enough quickness to make would-be-tacklers to miss.

Bottom line: Crumpler has the strength, speed and physical tools to be exceptional at the next level. He could slip to the second round due to some injury concerns, but with so many teams needing an all-purpose tight end, chances are he could be drafted late in the first round. He is a tenacious blocker, if not a powerful one. Has good quickness and hands. Competitive. Only downfall is the fact he has not been thrown to a lot.

Arizona State’s Todd Heap is next in the top prospects he stands 6-4 and a half and weighs 252-pounds with a 40-yard dash speed of 4.65. He has been compared to Jay Riemersma of the Buffalo Bills.

Hands: Heap is extremely athletic, and has also played basketball at Arizona State. He does have great hands, and is the best receiving tight end in this 2001 NFL Draft. At times, he did struggle catching the ball in 2000, much to everyone’s surprise but some of that could have been to horrible quarterbacking.

Patterns: He can be compared to a wide receiver at the tight end position. He runs crisp underneath routes, and he knows how to get open down the seam. Will be very few tight ends that run better routes than Heap.

Release: Could have some trouble in the terms of being muscled around. But he is a good athlete with a keen football mind. He will figure out how to get off the line, using his quick feet, speed and hands.

Run after the catch: Is just as good as any tight end in the NFL today, after the catch. He has great speed and is very comfortable running with the ball. He will be a huge threat in the open field.

Bottom line: To pass-oriented offenses Heap is a top choice because he is exceptional in the passing game. If he does have a flaw it is his blocking ability this alone will drop him to a late first round selection if not second round. He is athletic and a receiving tight end with speed, body control and the ability to adjust to the ball with reliable hands.

Lacks strength and bulk to be a great blocker.

South Carolina’s Arther Love rounds out the top three he is a bit of a project though he stands 6-3 and a half and weighs 236-pounds and has a 40-yard dash speed of 4.82. He has been compared to Pittsburgh Steeler tight end Mark Bruener.

Strengths: He is a great athlete with all the tools. He has limited college production because he played in a run-first system. He shows more pure quickness then speed. He is explosive off the line, and gets into routes quickly. He is a crisp rote runner with good hands and impressive footwork.

He is also a strong run blocker and shows the proper footwork of moving to get out as a blocker. He is a raw and try-hard player.

Weaknesses: He has very limited experience as a receiver, and it shows. He was a bit lost when he was a go-to target at the Senior Bowl. He will need some time to be coached and grow up. Needs to be more physical as a blocker, and probably needs to bulk up a bit.

Plays too light on his feet and needs to develop drop-step technique in pass protection.

Bottom line: Love is like a basketball power forward playing tight end. He has good athletic ability, but is mostly untapped. The flaw is his ability to match-up as a blocker.

He will get a serious look in the mid to late rounds in this draft. Maybe this is an alternative to Greg Clark being the better blocker?

The Tight End position is crucial to the West Coast type offensive philosophy. We must sustain it in order to be an exceptional offense for years to come. So far we have done that especially in restructuring Clark’s contract and resigning him for three more years.

However the margin of error is real being that should Clark again fall to injury where do we turn? Another capable and talented tight end with potential for growth should be considered in all honesty.

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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